Something smells fishy, though I don't think Phillip McGinnis can tell.
I looked over at the hospital room door again. Two uniformed officers were talking in hushed tones. I didn't know what they were discussing and frankly, I doubted they knew much. I took the report I'd just read and placed it back into the folder and slid it into my leather computer bag. I glanced down at the newspaper on my lap and picked it up.
Rifling through it, I came upon the section of the Minneapolis Mercury-Times I wanted. It wasn't something I usually read. I liked the sports section, the comics, and occasionally the regional news. I never perused the lifestyle section and most assuredly not the food columns.
I opened the sheaf of pages and thumbed through until I came across a byline. I needed to know something about him, and reviewing his work would be a good start. All the reports showed a man with whom I had nothing in common. That was unfortunate.
I started with the headline, snorted, and continued to read:
"Cantrell's Country Inn is a smartly appointed eatery with a surprisingly fresh décor that is pleasing to the eye and calming to the spirit. Jerry Canter and Stephanie Relling found sophisticated renditions of pale paisley fabrics and soft, supple, tan leather covers for the seats. Mixed with some high-end antiques and truly amazing watercolor art, they've blended country comfort with the kind of contemporary design you expect at a Michelin star restaurant.
"That is where the grace and polish ends.
"Canter's take on rural Southern cuisine is a steaming hot mess. Somehow he manages to make delicate quail eggs as greasy as an oil rig and as appetizing as a used facial tissue following a bad cold.
"If I thought the quail egg hash small plate was bad, the black-eyed peas dish was even worse. Perhaps the chef thought undercooked and over-seasoned marbles with overcooked and under-seasoned greens were a momentous pairing. He was wrong. The texture was like pebbles from a mossy pond sprayed with pepper infused vinegar. Revolting.
"I'd have to say the worst offense the chef subjected his diners to was his rendition of Southern fried chicken. The chef managed to burn the batter so severely I almost cracked a tooth, which was fortunate since my food was bloody in the middle. I stopped and inspected the carnage and therefore avoided being hospitalized."
I put down the paper and stifled a chuckle. Those poor entrepreneurs had worked so hard, and this pretentious prig ripped them to pieces. I did like the name of the article though. It was called, Polished Horse Apples and Exquisite Road Kill.
Phillip Patrick McGinnis was indeed an accomplished hit man with a poison pen. However, I didn't know how this would help me. Again, we had nothing in common at all. I picked up my smart phone and started searching for other articles.
I found something which surprised me. McGinnis's critiques were usually somewhat balanced. He called one restaurant's steak tartare "inspired and refreshing" and then said the service was "indifferent and elderly. The waitress forgot to launder her top and remnants of something brown and flaking adorned her collar."
For another restaurant, McGinnis wrote the ambience was "tired and stodgy," but described their lemon tart as, "like the essence of lemon blossoms dancing a ballet on the tongue. My mouth applauded the performance as sublime."
I again felt my lips curl in delight as the man's sparkling wit spilled from the page. I kept searching and hoping for something else to inform me. The food critic's bio on the newspaper's site was no help at all. McGinnis had graduated from Johnson and Wales culinary school. Previously, he got his journalism degree from the University of Minnesota. He'd been writing for the last twenty-eight years reviewing restaurants, night clubs, and resorts. His reputation seemed impeccable as his name came up on journalistic awards press releases.
P.P. McGinnis was a highly regarded man. He was also a ghost whose photo was not included in his bio or on his Facebook page or his Twitter account. I had his driver’s license photo, but it was so bad, I didn’t know what he’d really look like. The Internet had no pictures of the man.
I closed the browser on my phone and sat back, closing my eyes. I could see the kind of man this critic would be. He'd be overweight, of course, his face round and florid, with beady little eyes. He'd be effete and fussy, clean-shaven with tiny, mousey ears. The critic would wear the most expensive clothes straining to hold in his girth. I could almost picture the tight Boss Hogg-like white suit he would favor. The image made me smile again.
His mannerisms would be foppish. His voice would lisp with thinly veiled sarcastic undertones and a syrupy condescending lilt. As I opened my eyes, I realized this was ridiculous. Within minutes, I'd be meeting the man, so this was an exercise in futility. Besides, it got me no closer to figuring out how to manage the situation.
My boss exited the hospital room and looked around. I waved my hand and he acknowledged my greeting with a nod. He gestured me over. Grabbing my bag and coat, I got up from the bench and walked over to him quickly.
"We may have an angle," he said to me in a growl. He's perfectly dressed in an immaculate dark gray suit with a midnight blue tie. His silver gray hair was perfectly combed and as usual there wasn't a hair out of place. "What do you know about fine cuisine?"
"Nothing," I answered. I know what the problem is. I just don't have a clue how to solve it.
"You're going to be his assistant."
"I don't know how to do anything like that," I answered, my eyes darting to the closed door of the hospital room. "He's going to figure out pretty quick I'm not a personal assistant type, or a secretary for that matter."
My boss didn't respond at first. His eyes slit and nervously twitched. "Reed, we cannot lose him. The entire case goes away if they succeed."
"I understand, but he's going to know I'm not an intern or an administrative assistant."
"We need you to be something, well, something more personal than that," Jennings answers. He looks very nervous as it begins to dawn on me.
"I'm not doing that!"
"Keep your voice down. We're trying to be discreet here."
I leaned in closely to his face. "I'm not going to be his boy toy. How old is the guy? Sixty?"
My boss looked taken aback. "Good lord, we aren't prostituting you out, Jeff. Jeezus H."
"Oh," I responded, backing up a little. "What do you need me to do?"
"Come with me," he said, gesturing toward the doorway. "It's best if you hear the whole thing."
I followed Jennings tall frame as he opened the door. He ducked a little as he entered though he isn't that tall. I think he does it instinctually.
As I entered the room I hear, "After the swelling goes down, I'm sure you'll be fine."
"Next week I have two very important reviews I need to do. Isn't there some kind of medication or procedure?" the white-haired man in the bed asked. I could see he was nothing like I'd imagined. As I stepped up next to my boss, I could see the man in the bed wasn't round at all. In fact, one would call his features angular.
His face was tilted towards a man in a white lab coat with a stethoscope around his neck. Presumably McGinnis's doctor, he was looking intently at a metal folder and scrolling something electronic beneath his fingers. The doctor was flicking and scanning a screen of some type.
"I'm sorry, but there nothing else we can-"
"Excuse me," the white haired patient interrupted loudly. "Who are you?" He was staring directly at me. I could feel my face redden under his imperious stare.
"Mr. McGinnis," my boss began, "he's-"
"Someone tried to take my life. You have now promised to protect me. I hope you don't think this infant, this school boy is going to be my guard?" The patient's scowl said it all.
"Agent Jeff Reed is perfectly capable of taking care of you without drawing undue attention, I assure you," Jennings answered calmly.
"How old are you?" McGinnis asked.
"I'm thirty years old," I answered. Quickly I added, "Sir," to the end of my answer.
"Nonsense," the white haired man uttered, along with a loud tsking of his tongue. "He's what, five feet, four inches tall, and what do you weigh? I doubt more than a hundred."
"I am five foot, five inches tall, and I can bench more than you weigh. I'm proficient in hand to hand combat, and I am an expert marksman. I spent four years in the marines," I spit out. Why did I say that? I never saw combat, but somehow I needed his approval. I didn’t think I was going to like him, but he was even worse than I imagined. As a kind of exclamation point I again added, "Sir." He was a prissy judgmental queen. The kind of guy I loathed.
"Did the girl's high school gymnastics team run out of candidates?" McGinnis asked with a sneer.
"Mr. McGinnis, I assure you Agent Reed will be more than capable of keeping you safe. Maybe he can also help with your other issue." Jennings stepped closer to the bed.
"Absurd," the patient said, spitting out the word. "What can Wee Willie Winky do to help?"
The doctor looked at his patient and then back to the agents. "Maybe he could help. If he tells you what he thinks, maybe you can translate it into a description. It's worth a shot."
I was still lost as to what kind of task they wanted me to perform. I was confident I could keep the man safe from any further attempts on his life, however I wasn't sure about any other skills I had.
"How is your nose?" the white-haired man asked, looking directly at me. I think I scowled at him, because he recoiled a little. "I asked how well your nose works."
"It works well enough, I guess," I responded.
McGinnis was now looking at me differently, appraising me. "Maybe."
"I don't understand," I finally said. "What does that question even mean?"
The doctor looked at his patient who nodded his assent. He pushed his thick glasses up his nose and let his metal clipboard fall to his side, his hand holding it firmly.
"When the SUV struck Mr. McGinnis's car, it deployed the airbag. The device struck him in the nose and also seemed to have given him a slight concussion around the olfactory bulb. This seems to have temporarily limited his sense of smell. We believe he'll recover completely, but in the meantime, he'll have trouble doing his job."
"Why? Isn't he a food critic? He can still taste the food fine, can't he?" I asked.
McGinnis pursed his generous lips and shook his head wildly. "So he's a munchkin, and dumber than a whole truckload of gravel."
"Excuse me," I said, getting a little heated now.
"Studies have shown over 85% of our sense of taste is actually from the aroma of the food and not the taste," the doctor answered.
"Oh," I said. "Well, I can smell and taste things just fine."
"I suppose your palate is confined to T.V. dinners and take home pizza." The old bastard was pissing me off now.
"I happen to love food and eating." I watched as the white-haired man scowled at my words. "Though I'm not a fan of things as bitter and sour as you."
The old man's eyes got really wide at my insult. Jennings put his hand on my arm, tugging at it. The doctor didn't say anything at first, but then his laugh exploded out of him. "He got you there Phil."
"Don't call me that," McGinnis said, biting his words. A tiny smile began creeping upon his lips though. It was like he couldn't stop it. The old gray stallion enjoyed a good comeback.
After a few moments, the white-haired man responded. "I guess we can give it a try. Why not?"
McGinnis was looking at me angrily over his reading glasses. We had met at an out-of-the-way trattoria near Powderhorn Park. He'd already reviewed the restaurant and was testing me on my smelling and tasting skills. So far, I'd failed miserably, but then I really didn't know what he was looking for in the first place.
"Please don't try to describe the flavors and aromas as I would. Your comparisons don't make sense. There is no way this marinara smells like swamp water and tastes like sour apples. I distinctly remember their sauce as being well balanced and a touch fruity."
"I'm trying," I said, hearing the teenage whine in the background. "I'm confused by what you're looking for, what these things are you're identifying."
McGinnis's face, lined and scruffy, contorted into a few different kinds of emotion. I was actually surprised at the man since I'd picked him up. Until right this moment, he'd been a decent human being. On top of it, my idea of him had been completely off.
When he exited his condo building, he was dressed in a light camel's hair coat which fit him perfectly. His torso was long and lean, his legs encased in brown slacks. His white hair, which had looked like an exploded pillow in the hospital, was now carefully combed and lay close to his head in tidy curls. His face was wrinkled and tan, but he looked well-rested and pleasant. As he slid into my SUV, he gave me a warm smile.
"I should escort you," I said as he buckled his seat belt. "It isn't safe for you to walk around alone."
"I doubt Mr. Santos will be jumping out of the bushes in Linden Hills to pounce on me in front of security cameras and my neighbors."
"Still," I said. "He's tried once, or at least we think so."
"The SUV was headed straight for me," he answered. I could see his eyes shift, looking around now. "It was intentional."
"Maybe I can make sure you get in and out of the building without any worries from now on," I said.
McGinnis nervously swallowed and then nodded yes. "I guess it wouldn't hurt to be careful."
"No, it wouldn't."
We took off after the food critic gave me the address of the restaurant. I had never been there before, but I was familiar with the area. It wasn't the best neighborhood. It wasn't the worst either.
I realized McGinnis was silently grinding his teeth. Having someone after you was nerve-wracking enough. While I'd read the file and knew the facts, I figured having him tell me his story might relax him. Sometimes repeating things aloud helps organize your thoughts, or at least that's how it worked for me.
"So, what got you into this mess?" I asked without looking over. I could feel the other man's eyes search me. I waited patiently.
"Don't you know?"
"I do. I wanted to hear your version, if you don't mind."
"Oh," McGinnis said. "I guess it started with seeing Santos in an Expedition at the airport with that woman, Miranda Holloway. I had just flown in from Palm Springs and was heading to the taxi stand when I passed them. I didn't know at first what I saw."
"What do you mean, didn't know what you saw?"
"I saw Santos put something to her neck. When I stepped closer, he started backing his vehicle up. By that time, she had disappeared. I didn't know exactly what happened."
"Did you know Michael Santos?" I prompted.
"No. After I got home, I turned on the news and her photo was all over the place. I remembered her distinctly because of her curly black hair and her red stocking hat." McGinnis paused and seemed to reflect on those moments a few days ago. Then he started again.
"I called the police and they asked me to come in and speak with them. I went down and they showed me photographs. They asked about the Expedition. I recognized Santos immediately because of his piercing. I think nose piercings look so goofy."
"So you identified Santos and Holloway. The police can't arrest him because they haven't found her, right?" I asked, knowing the answer.
"I guess they picked him up. He denied being with her. Santos admitted to being in the airport pickup area, but said he never saw or picked up Miranda Holloway, the woman who'd been kidnapped. Without a body, they couldn't hold him. They don't have the Expedition either. He said it was stolen." McGinnis was lost in his story. I had only glanced at him briefly, but the man was now quite subdued. "I wish I never would have called them. Now, I will probably lose out on the job."
I was taken aback at this new bit of information. "What job are you talking about?"
McGinnis shook his head. "Never mind. It's nothing you need to worry about."
"No, tell me," I urged as we drove under the highway. The gloom of the overpass seemed to make the other man shiver.
McGinnis looked out his window and sighed. "The three newspapers have decided to combine forces and eliminate their food review sections. Instead, they will cooperate and only have a couple reviewers for the entire Twin Cities area. There are five of us critics in town, but only two people are needed for the new joint venture."
It was now dawning on me how vital this next week was for the man. If these critics were being assessed for the last two journalistic positions, McGinnis couldn't afford to stop writing critiques and lay low for a while. No wonder he'd refused to accept help before now.
"I don't know what I'll do if they dump me," McGinnis said wistfully. "I'll be sixty-one in two months. Who's going to hire a leftover food critic if I'm passed over? That motherfucker Santos took my most important sense. Without being able to smell anything, it's like I'm crippled and blind. I'm terrified."
"Don't worry about it. I can help. Trust me, okay?"
McGinnis looked at me with such distress. Behind it was a tiny bit of hope I prayed I wouldn't betray.
"Tell me what you're looking for, and maybe it will help me analyze what I'm experiencing," I finally said after a long silence.
At first, McGinnis looked despondent, his face sagged even more. After another minute, his eyes opened a little more and the corner of his mouth tweaked. I could see words were forming in his mind. After another few seconds, his lips parted, quivering slightly.
"What was your favorite sandwich growing up?" he asked, surprising me.
"PB and J, I guess. Why?"
McGinnis's face lit up, brightly shining at the response. "That's great," he said. "You see, it's the perfect balance of flavors, scents, textures, and mediums. Did you like to eat it with an apple or chips?"
"I liked it with both. It was my favorite sack lunch," I answered dumbfounded as to where this was going.
"There is a theory in the world of food that the best food combinations include the largest number of receptors in our tongues and in our noses. This is because a variety of flavors and aromas include more nutrients we need to survive and thrive. It's the evolutionary culinary theory."
"Okay," I said. "What does that have to do with my favorite sandwich as a kid?"
McGinnis seemed to become even larger and more confident. It was amazing to see the man swell as his intellect filled the small booth at the rear of the little Italian restaurant. "Our most primal senses of taste are salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami, or protein. Peanut butter gives us salt and protein. Jelly gives us sweet and sour. The oil in peanut butter as well as the thickness gives our mouths substance and texture. The liquid nature of the jelly or jam lubricates the palate while the bread acts as a neutral medium which actually enhances the delivery of the flavors and textures."
At first I was a bit lost. As I considered his words, he was right. Those things were all true. "Okay. But, what does-"
"The aroma of the peanuts and the esters of the fruit add to the other elements. As you chew, these smells rise into the nasal cavity and your nerves pick up these extra enhancements. If you're eating the crunch of a potato chip or an apple, you've added even more elements. Together these become more satisfying. Therefore, when I analyze foods, I'm weighing all of these proportions for the perfect formula. Essentially as a food critic, that's what I do." McGinnis looked pleased with himself.
After only a few moments, I tried to translate his explanation into another example. "So, when I taste this spaghetti and meatball plate, I'm looking for the balance of salt, meatiness, sweetness, sour, aroma and texture?"
"Yes!" McGinnis said, almost shouting. The elderly man was practically bouncing in the booth. "Tell me what you sense."
I picked up the fork and took a sliver of the meatball covered in red, thick tomato sauce. I popped it in my mouth and chewed slowly. Suddenly, I could sense more about it than I had previously. There was a slight saltiness. As a higher note, the sweetness of the onions and garlic were coming through as well as the tart balance of tomato. Beneath it all was the unctuous sense of meat and heartiness.
As I breathed in through my nose, I could now catch the slight bitterness of something, parsley and oregano maybe. Also, the meat and sauce held a hint of mint and a touch of something like licorice. It was also a little green tasting, but not blatantly so. I opened my eyes.
"Should I taste a little mint and licorice?" I was almost afraid to look at the white-haired man in case I was wrong.
He was nodding energetically, his bangs waving frantically. "Yes, it's the fennel and the marjoram. Do you sense anything else?"
"There is a hint of acidity which isn't like the tomato. It's almost got a, I don't know, rich quality." I looked at him in surprise. "How can acid taste rich?"
"When it's wine," he said, grinning ear to ear. "You, my boy, are a natural. You have sniffed out the major elements of their sauce and correctly identified the traits they bring to the recipe."
I couldn't help it. I felt pretty good about being right.
"We might just pull this off," McGinnis said, rubbing his palms together and managing to look a little maniacal at the same time. "I might not be out of the running."
I hoped my first time wasn't blind luck. In the meantime, I still needed to keep the old man safe. A lunatic with nothing to lose was still out to kill him. I hoped they'd find Holloway soon. That way Santos could be behind bars and the food critic wouldn't be in constant peril. The line needed to be played out.
McGinnis and I were now chatting quite comfortably after our practice session of food tasting at the trattoria. We got into my black SUV and I was driving him home. The most direct route was Lake Street and so we were heading down the road, McGinnis talking about the subtle textures and mouth feel of gelatin when I saw the vehicle behind us, a Grand Cherokee with tinted windows.
At first I didn't think anything of it. Driving down a main thoroughfare, I expected the same traffic to follow for a while. It didn't mean we were being followed. I decided to see if it was a tail or just my own skepticism.
I hit my right turn signal and slowed as we approached Minnehaha Avenue. There was a tangle of streets north of Lake and if the other vehicle kept close, I knew they were trouble.
As I slid into the right lane, the Jeep passed by, though they were going more slowly than normal. I abruptly turned onto Minnehaha and then took a left after half a block onto 28th toward Coastal Seafood, the fishmonger of choice in the region.
I looked around and we seemed to have lost them. Just as my heartbeat began to slow, I saw the Grand Cherokee out of the corner of my eye. It was headed straight for us. The silvery glint of the tinted windshield winked at me maliciously.
I panicked as I saw it barreling right at us. "Philip, get down now!" I shouted as I saw the other vehicle whip around the corner, the barrel of a gun sticking out of the passenger side window. "Now!" I bellowed, pulling the food critic over toward me. A loud blast came from the other vehicle and at the same time I hit the accelerator. The windshield erupted into a spiderweb of splintered safety glass. There was a gaping bullet hole in the passenger side of the glass where McGinnis's head had been.
"We need to bolt," I yelled and pushed the older man toward the floor of the SUV. Another shot came through the driver's side window shattering it and barely missing me. The glass had evaporated as pebbles showered me. I felt the air blast as it passed me by. "Stay down."
Thump. I heard a third bullet hitting the door and punching through it. I spun the SUV into a sharp turn, passed the Jeep, and then turned to the right to get behind it. I pulled my gun from my holster under my suit coat. "We're going to lose them." I was still shouting and there were sirens now in the background. The loud gunfire had alerted someone friendly in the area.
It was then time seemed to be suspended. The events spread out. As McGinnis cowered, the radio spit out positions. My own trajectory changed. The vehicle beneath me shifted from left to right and back again. Time again accelerated as I began to see what was going on around me.
Grabbing the speaker, I hit the button and a series of numbers, codes, and words, came spilling out, "Shots fired at Minnehaha and 28th from a late model, dark green Grand Cherokee with illegally tinted windows. Requesting backup now and send an escort for BCA Agent Jeff Reed and witness Philip McGinnis." The dispatch responded in kind. I knew what was going on. It frightened me.
"Who is it?" the old man cried out from the floor. "Did you see Santos?"
"I didn't see who was in the Jeep. It was obviously someone Santos sent out to ambush us. I didn't think they'd start shooting at us on a busy city street." I tried to stop hollering and keep calm, but it wasn't working well. My heart was racing and I couldn't catch my breath at first.
"Can I get up yet?"
"Not yet," I cautioned as I gunned the motor and barreled up Minnehaha towards the police station and safety. I needed to get McGinnis someplace safe. "You didn't get hit, did you?"
"Just some cuts from the glass I think," the critic answered. His voice was pitchy and warbled. "I'm bleeding. My cheek and neck are bloody."
"As long as you didn't get a bullet."
"I don't think so."
"Fuck!" I yelled, smacking the steering wheel. "I can't believe they shot us up like that. Damnit!"
I looked down and saw McGinnis was weeping silently, rubbing his red stained cheeks with a paper napkin. I took a deep breath and held it. I let it out and saw we were only a couple of blocks from the precinct building. "It's going to be fine, Philip. We're going to catch these people and get Santos locked up. I'll keep you safe, okay?"
McGinnis was nodding as he continued rubbing the blood and tears from his face. He tried to speak and then stopped himself.
I looked in the rear view mirror and there was no one following us. Somehow I'd lost the Jeep. I prayed quickly as my heart beat slowed.
"There were two patrol cars in the area as well as your backup, and when the shots were fired, they high-tailed it to the scene," the sergeant questioning me said. He'd both recorded and written down my statement. A detective was in a conference room with a much shaken Philip McGinnis. Now all that was left at the Fourth Precinct was paperwork and waiting.
"They have them holed up beneath the 55 overpass?" I asked.
"That's what dispatch is reporting. A dark green Grand Cherokee with tinted windows is in a standoff with Minneapolis police. We believe they are the guys who shot at you. They both have some pretty heavy duty rifles."
"Is Santos in the vehicle?"
"Robbie Santos isn't quite so stupid, but he really crossed the line this time. We have Hennepin County deputies picking him up as we speak. The registration for the Jeep belongs to his corporation. We've got him dead to rights this time." The cop seemed pretty pleased.
"We figured he'd make a move against McGinnis, but not one so openly violent and dangerous."
"It was a good plan which could have gone wrong. It didn't. You kept him safe and now we've got Santos's dirty bullets in your SUV. The case is foolproof. Not even our DA could screw this up," the sergeant said with a smile. "Want some more coffee?"
"No thanks," I answered, still shaken up by the attack. As I thought back to our original ploy, I considered how close this had come to being a disaster.
We thought parading McGinnis around town a little would bait the drug dealer into trying something. At best, we figured he'd have someone tailing, watching for a chance to pounce on the man. In the meantime, we had both undercover and uniformed officers around me at all times. For the past two days, taking McGinnis out and around hadn't gotten a bite. Then it all came to a head today.
"We're lucky," I said when the Minneapolis officer returned. "McGinnis could have been killed today."
"Or you," the man responded as he sat back down. "It could have easily been you, too."
I shivered at the thought.
"So, what is the first thing you taste," Philip asked, swishing water around in his mouth. "I'm not getting much yet."
I closed my eyes and breathed in as I took a bite of the entrée. I could sense a sweet, roundness of roasted garlic. I could feel the heartiness of the mushroom with an earthy note as I chewed. There was a slightly nutty quality to the Asiago cheese, the muddy fresh note of the spinach, and of course the light, mellow flavor of the underlying chicken breast. I opened my eyes and quickly wrote down my impressions. Philip was smiling at me, proudly beaming really, as he watched me practice his craft. I didn't think I could ever become as accomplished as he was, but I was having fun trying.
"Let me see what you've got here. So you think it's a Chenin Blanc, not a Sauvignon Blanc?" he asked.
"I'm not getting any grassy notes at all. The only green taste is the spinach, which of course has some of the same elements." I was watching the food critic as his grin broadened even more.
"You have an amazing palate, you know that?" he said, placing the notebook upside down. "It took me years to hone my craft, and you seem to know it without practice."
"I'm not even close to being as knowledgeable as you," I demurred. I could feel the flattery warming my face though.
"Do you know what I started out as?" Philip asked, leaning closer. He took off his reading glasses and laid them on the table.
"I thought you'd always been a food critic. Didn't you go to culinary school?"
McGinnis shook his head slowly. "My first job was as a sports writer. I wrote summaries of prep school games and then moved onto college football, then baseball. I wrote about sports for a good seven years before I went to Johnson and Wales back in the eighties."
"I didn't know that. Are you really into sports?"
"I love watching and commenting on the players. I like analyzing teams and figuring out what weaknesses and strengths they have when playing. I was a pretty good basketball player and a passable cross country runner in high school."
"Why did you give up sports writing if you loved it so much?" I watched as the older man was now uncomfortably drawing circles in the condensation on the tabletop.
"I was outed," he said softly. "I was seeing a young man who decided public figures like me should be open about being gay. He did an interview with a local tabloid reporter and then the gay newspaper picked it up. Suddenly, no player wanted to be interviewed or talk with me."
"That's awful," I said. "How could someone--?"
Philip interrupted. "Relax. It was a long time ago. Things were different. People were dying and some activists thought people like me should speak out. I simply left town I was so embarrassed. I hate to say I was ashamed of who I was."
"It's still an awful thing to do to you."
"In a way, it was good in the long run. I went to cooking school. I came back home and the same paper hired me, only as a food critic. Frankly, I think they felt sorry for me. I wasn't a good critic at the beginning, but I grew into it. I've had a good life. My career has blossomed."
I didn't know how to follow up his statement. It was a little like a confession of sorts. As the silence began to stretch, I realized I was staring down at my hands. They were shaking. A huge burden was pressing down on me, it seemed.
I looked up at a puzzled looking McGinnis. "Are you okay?" he asked.
"I know how you felt, when they outed you," I said, haltingly. "I'm not out at work either."
"Have you told anyone?"
I nodded, avoiding his eyes. "I'm out to friends and family, but not at work."
"Well," he started. "You do work in law enforcement, and I'm sure there are people who are--"
"No," I said, stopping him with my raised hand. "There was a guy who was out in the bureau and they treated him alright. I mean, they didn't harass him or anything. It was his defining feature though. Everyone knew Romer as the 'gay agent', not just an agent. I don't want to be defined solely by it, so I haven't told anyone."
"I can understand your feelings. Jeff, do you like what you do?"
I started nodding in response to his question. Then I stopped and I thought about his question. I liked the position and the money. I liked some of my coworkers. As I cast my mind back to the bullets shattering the windshield and buzzing past my face, I knew it wasn't really true. Things seemed out of control. I no longer saw it as my career. Now it was a place I was scared of. I hadn't slept well in the week since it happened.
"Actually, I'm not sure I do."
Philip watched me closely as the revelation came to me. I felt another sense of liberation as I accepted the fact I didn't like the bureau, and I didn't want to be in law enforcement any more. My world tilted and it felt more natural now. Everything felt in place and not off-kilter.
"Taste this again." The critic pushed the plate of Chicken Florentine closer. "Go ahead."
"I'll never be as good as you," I said, picking up the fork.
"You're a natural. I wasn't."
I cut off a piece of chicken, dredged it in the white sauce laced with green ribbons, and put it in my mouth. I breathed deeply through my nose and could taste, no experience, the delicate aroma of the chanterelle mushrooms, the texture of the creamy sauce, and the richness of the underlying meat sautéed in artisan butter. Maybe he was right. I could tell what all the notes were in this culinary arrangement. I could now feel what kind of story the chef was telling me. The balance he'd built was like a musical score, complex and yet with an identifiable melody.
"I can teach you how to express it," McGinnis said, patting my hand. "That's all you need. The rest is all inside you."
“Do you really need the competition?” I asked him. “Remember, there are only a couple of spots at the new blog.”
“I’m not sure if I want to continue much longer. Once you get shot at, it kind of changes your perspective a little.”
I considered what he said. He was right.
I hope you enjoyed our little culinary tour. If you want to know more about the balance of flavors idea, check out Justin Warner's "The Laws of Cooking, And How to Break Them." It's an interesting read with amazing ideas.